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Sanitation Revolution in India



Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Ph.D., D.Litt.

Sociologist & Social Reformer

Founder, Sulabh Sanitation Movement


Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are celebrating birthday of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India this day. While celebrating, we are also starting a sanitation revolution in India which is much needed. Mrs. Gandhi was concerned about sanitation and had said, “Sanitation in India is not only cleanliness; it is also an end to the humiliation and miseries of scavengers who carry human excreta on the head.” While I was struggling hard to take Sulabh Sanitation Movement forward in the state of Bihar, Mrs. Gandhi in a way, came to my help by writing to Shri Yogi, a Member of the Legislative Assembly. “I am writing to the Chief Minister and asking him to give personal attention to this matter. I entirely agree with you that our Party should be active in this important social programme.” and thereafter Sulabh sanitation programme took off.

5-6 years ago at the meeting of World Toilet Organisation in Singapore, the idea came to me to celebrate one day as a World Toilet Day. In that meeting I suggested 19th November as this day is the birthday of Mrs. Indira Gandhi to whom the cause of sanitation was dear. My proposal was accepted in that meeting. Ambassador of Singapore wrote a letter to the Secretary General of U.N.O. to accept this day to celebrate World Toilet Day and U.N. declared 19th November as World Toilet Day. So we are celebrating World Toilet Day and remembering Mrs. Indira Gandhi whose help made a great impact in the field of sanitation. On this day now, we have come up with the idea to also start a sanitation revolution in this country. Whereas one revolution led by Mahatma Gandhi brought independence to India this revolution will bring freedom from dirt and filth at which people of the world frown on Indians and their behaviour in general which shows no care for environmental sanitation and pays no heed to it.

I have been talking about sanitation, specially toilets, for over four decades but still the full story has not unfolded. The fact is that the world is changing faster than we are able to cope with it. However, the consequence of my unceasing and continuous talking has been that sanitation, which was a closet whisper, has now become an international slogan, and all the countries of the world, specially the developing ones, have begun to realize that either we clean up places to remain healthy and productive or stagnate only to live a Hobbesian “nasty, brutish and short life.” Let us therefore not stop talking about toilet because on it depends India’s future growth.

As a matter of fact, our grandmothers had told us to wash our hands before eating and of other sanitation habits which have been handed down to us from generation to generation. We had the Indus Valley Civilization with well laid-out sanitation systems in urban centres at a time when the people in the West were hunters and wood gatherers struggling to survive the ravages of the once frozen Continent. But as the population in India grew in city centres, a mad scramble for survival set in, and as a result we forgot about sanitation habits about which our grandmothers had told us – to keep clean and grow! Simple practice of sanitation has now become so important that it is on top of the world’s agenda. And, the Global Handwashing Day is celebrated on October 15, every year. Time magazine of the US had reported in the beginning of the year that it is not splitting of atom, probing the psyche, splicing genes, cloning sheep, inventing plastic, radar, silicon, television or anything else, but the toilet which is humankind’s top achievement of all times.

Defecation in open and manual cleaning of human excreta by the people called ‘untouchables’ are centuries old practices. Gandhi abhorred both the practices and he suggested ‘Tatti pe mitti’ or using trench latrines. Gandhi also had a wish to restore the human rights and dignity of untouchables. Gandhi’s dream could not be fulfilled during his lifetime. Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy to rescue untouchables from shackles of slavery to bring them in the mainstream of society on a par with others became passion of my life in 1968. Since then I have been working day and night to change the sanitation scenario in India, to help stop the practice of defecation in the open and to raise the status of untouchables equal to that of the upper caste people. My journey of 45 years has been peaceful and non-violent without causing or hurting the feeling of upper caste people. I have brought the human scavengers on a par with others and now they live without fear and constrains in Alwar, Tonk and Gaziabad, shoulder to shoulder with people of upper castes.

During the First Plan Period (1951-56) only 3 per cent of the total population was served by sewerage system as only 23 cities out of 48 having a population of over 1 lakh had sewerage system. There were 12 other towns which were partially sewered. There was widespread phenomenon of open air defecation and in the urban areas there were bucket privies cleaned by scavengers. The scenario however has undergone a change as depicted in the following table.


Total coverage




No census data















No. of Scavengers

1931                           19,57,450

1961                             8,02,400

Dec. 2009                    1,17,090

This has been possible partially because to end both the practices I invented two technologies. One for individual houses and the other for public places like housing colonies, high-rise buildings, schools, colleges, hospitals and public toilets in non-sewered areas. It is because of these that India is heading towards a situation to ‘stop the defecation in the open’ and ‘end the practice of manual cleaning by human scavengers’. I also gave the concept of maintenance of public toilets on ‘pay & use’ basis without putting burden on the public exchequer. My idea of solving the sanitational problem in India has crossed the national boundaries and it has reached Afghanistan and 15 countries of Africa. After my involvement for 45 years now I propose that there should be a sanitation revolution in this country to make India clean which Gandhi wanted.

Today, on 19th November, 2013, the World Toilet Day is being celebrated to make India clean which Mahatma Gandhi wanted. Mahatma had said “I want clean India first and independence later on.” To achieve this end, we have to take some decisions which every Indian must follow. To keep India clean is not something confined to toilet or environmental sanitation but involves a Cultural Revolution changing thoughts, behaviour and attitudes of the people to behave in a decent manner to keep the surroundings and the nation clean. The endeavour should be to bring about 90% change in behavioural pattern of the people of this country and effect improvement in 10% of sanitation policy of the nation. To change the cultural ethos the people and the Government will have to work together to make this country a more civilized, cultured and liveable nation. Every individual – men, women and children – of this country will have to develop consciousness and awareness about sanitation everywhere so that India can be kept clean. Everybody will have to prepare to achieve the goal of a sanitation revolution in India.

·         To keep India clean everyone will have to change his thought, behaviour and attitude in such a way that he does not spread dirt in any manner anywhere and if one finds some dirt somewhere one would like to clean it himself or motivate other people to do so. Gandhiji wanted people to do things first themselves before preaching others; and this will apply here as well. In this regard, Ho Chi Minh also said “To make the revolution, one must first and foremost remould oneself.” So in accordance with what Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh said, every citizen of India should change his behaviour.

The first contribution towards cleanliness would be for everyone to keep his own living place clean without any dirt and keep everything in order so that it looks good and beautiful including their bedrooms, bathrooms as everyday people spend some time there. Most of the discoveries have taken place in bathrooms. When you are in the bathroom sitting quietly you ponder over problems and consider various solutions.

If you go to a temple or a place of worship you ask something from the divinity, but in a bathroom you are always thinking which in turn at times leads to giving something to the mankind so this place should be more clean than the place of worship. Secondly, if we have to remove some waste material from the house it should be kept in a manner that it can produce bio-fertilizer or if somebody has to take away the waste material then it should not be inconvenient to do so. In this way you can help yourself and also the neighbours. Your house must have the flush toilet. You should not have bucket toilets cleaned by somebody else. Flush toilet is a symbol of civilization and culture.

·         In a civilized and cultured society how can you allow your mothers and sisters to go outside to defecate without safety and dignity. Sometimes they have to encounter problems while going to defecate. You must have a flush toilet in your home as a flush toilet is also the symbol of prosperity. In Germany it was asked of Pt. Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India “when will your country be a prosperous nation?” When every house in India will have a flush toilet, was Pt. Nehru’s reply.

·         Those who live in the villages must have a toilet, bathroom and pits for the disposal of waste materials from houses and also an arrangement for proper disposal of the waste water arising due to drawing water from the wells or tubewells for various purposes.

·         In villages most of the houses do not have toilets and bathrooms. One of the most important things that the Father of the Nation worried about was the sight of village women bathing themselves close to the wells or river banks just by covering themselves in an awkward way which did not allow them even to clean body properly. Gandhiji wanted household toilets for everybody especially for women so that they could wash their bodies properly and become immune from the possibility of any infection. Provision of household toilets must be made compulsory if India is to put paid to insanitation. It is suggested that apart from toilet and bathroom every house should have a small room for keeping grains and also firewood which will take care of all the necessities of a family in a village and will help keep the house clean and livable.

·         Due to the embarrassment and shame the women are required to control the call of nature but it is not so in case of men. If we change our thinking and culture we should not defecate and urinate in public places. This will help end the practice of open defecation and women will also heave a sigh of relief.

·         We should develop a habit not to throw anything on the streets, lanes and bylanes or anywhere as we do today and thus help keep the places clean.

·         While travelling by car or in buses or in trains we do not carry bags for spitting, vomitting and for keeping leftovers of the food taken by us and throw them outside which creates dirty surroundings. We spit everywhere, vomit everywhere and leave food leftover by us. One must have seen the sight of spitting outside from the car by people. So there should be a cultural change in the habits of the Indian people and they must take care of what they do in public places.

·         Although roadside dhabas serve useful purpose – they are patronized by people who cannot afford eating in costly restaurants. But insofar as question of cleanliness is concerned it leaves much to be desired. The municipal authorities or food inspectors should look into this aspect of the problem. The real problem with dhabas, as people who eat there know, is total absence of toilets or bathrooms in their premises or in their neighbourhood. Dhabas should be legally bound to provide toilets, urinals etc. in or outside their premises separately both for men and women.

·         With the large scale construction of intercity roads all over the country road network has improved. But as any long distance traveller will tell you toilet or urinals are not to be found for miles and miles on the National and state Highways. Construction of such facilities on roadsides is a must, now that travelling by cars due to increasing prosperity in our country is becoming common.

·         Every house should have a flush toilet. Large number of public toilets and urinals should be built and maintained properly so that people do not defecate or urinate in the open.

·         In a village panchayat bhawans, health centres, community centres and schools must have provision of toilets and urinals and garbage bins at different places so that people can deposit leftovers in the garbage bins. In urban areas public toilets and urinals on large scale should be maintained and dustbins at different places kept so that passersby can throw leftovers in dustbins. There should be proper arrangement for keeping these dustbins in appropriate places and not in a haphazard way by civic authorities.

·         Large number of people daily visit shops springing up everywhere. But the number of toilets provided in shops or in their vicinity is hardly adequate keeping in view the large number of people who visit them daily. This often results in embarrassment for men and more so for women. The construction of sufficient number of toilets in business places must be made mandatory to meet this problem.

·         Although our religious places – mosques, temples, gurudwaras and churches – are crowded, the provision of conveniences for the devotees often remains neglected, especially on a scale that is needed. A couple of toilets in a church visited by hundreds on Sundays hardly makes any sense. Will our government wake up to the problem and make it obligatory for religious places to have sanitation facilities commensurate with the number of devotees visiting for the darshan of Gods.

·         Congregation of people at the time of festivals is a regular occurrence. It also takes place periodically as it happens at Kumbh Melas. Yet the sanitation provided at these religious gatherings is so inadequate that sprawling Pandals become stinking even before the devotees have paid their obeisance to deities to whom they come to worship. Authorities who fail to provide sufficient number of conveniences for hundreds who collect at these congregations must be made accountable.

·         In slum areas people cannot have toilet and bathrooms inside the house because it does not belong to them. Therefore there should be provision of public toilets, public bathing places, drinking water facilities, telephones, small health centres so that people do not defecate in the open and make the surroundings dirty. This is the only solution to keep the slum areas clean. There is no other option for the present.

·         The biggest missing factor in our planning at national or regional levels is accountability. Just as in schools and colleges, heads of institutions should be made accountable for any sanitation lapse in their institutions; railway authorities also need to be made answerable for insanitation in trains or at railway platforms most of which remain stinking besides other problems they cause.

·         Gandhiji wanted the schools to attach as much importance to provision of toilets as to benches, blackboards and classrooms. Personal hygiene like washing of hands after use of toilet, pairing of nails and daily morning baths are equally important. Without provision of sanitation, education has no meaning. Unless heads of institutions are made accountable for lapses, chances of improvement are indeed very slim. Toilet in schools should be maintained by the teachers and students on turn by turn basis. Only then the toilets can be kept clean.